December 14 2016

The Importance of Balance—and 15 Ways to Enhance and Preserve It

By Mark Sisson
35 Comments

Inline_The_Importance_of_BalanceEverything in the world is conspiring to make you fall over. The ground can be slippery, slick, and studded with protrusions. The earth can move under your feet. The discarded banana peel is an ever present threat. Gravity itself exerts a constant downward pull, and any tissue straying from perpendicularity with the ground feels the pull that much more. That we manage to stay upright at all is impressive.

Not all of us do.

For youngsters, balance is something you actively practice in certain situations: it’s what you do when walking along the top of the monkey bars or ride a surfboard/skateboard/snowboard. You only think about balance when you decide to test it. Good balance enhances your ability to move through and interact with the world. It’s essential for all of us—and especially for athletes whose feats put them at regular odds with the forces that threaten to throw us off balance.

The older you get, the more the world challenges your balance. And when you’re pushing 80+ and a slight miscalculation can shatter your hip, balance is everything. Good balance lowers the incidence of those miscalculations. It’s essential for staying intact into old age.

It’s good to note that we integrate data from several different systems of the body to “balance”:

Vision—Our visual input provides a overview of the physical surroundings.

Vestibular System—The fluid in our inner ears acts as a kind of level, telling us where our bodies are in space.

Somatosensory System—The nerves in our muscles and connective tissues relay information about our position in the surroundings.

Right off the bat, we see why older people lose balance as they age. Their vision degrades and their muscles atrophy, effectively severing or severely weakening two of three systems required for good balance.

Why should I care?

First, falls and fractures. Oldsters have weaker bones. The loss of bone itself may not increase fall risk, but it does increase the risk of fractures in the event of a fall. Weak bones make balance even more crucial.

Bone loss typically accompanies menopause, which is why over 70% of hip fractures in seniors occur in women. If you’re unlucky enough to suffer a hip fracture after the age of 50, you have a 24% chance of dying within a year.

Measuring balance in the elderly is even an effective predictor of their fall risk. Better balance, less risk.

Younger, more active people who want to enhance their quality of life and performance—athletes, weekend warriors, most people reading now—also benefit from better balance. After all, balance isn’t just standing on one foot on a stable surface. It’s also maintaining your posture and technique while moving, running, or jumping quickly—dynamic balance.

Balance predicts fall and injury risk in athletes, too, especially if they have a history of injuries, and balance training reduces the risk of injuries in volleyball and soccer players with prior history of injuries.

Okay. I’m sold, Sisson. What can I do to improve my balance?

Get enough sleep.

I don’t care if you’re sick of hearing me crow about sleep. It’s that important, and I’m going to continue to detail the many facets of life affected by poor sleep.

The day after a night of sleep deprivation, your dynamic balance suffers. Your ability to integrate sensorimotor function with visual input to control posture drops. Your postural stability gets wonky. If you keep it up at a chronic level, even missing “just a few hours” each night, you impair postural control.

Stop aging.

Aging worsens the effects of sleep deprivation on balance. Aging weakens muscles and bones, making you more prone to falls and bone breaks when you do. So stop it.

I’m kidding, kinda. Everyone progresses through space-time. We all “get older.” But your biological age—the health and resilience of your tissues, organs, and abilities—is more malleable. You can’t turn back time, but you can compress morbidity. You can live long and drop dead:

Get strong.

Balance isn’t all in the head. You don’t think yourself to stability. You must ultimately use your muscles to stabilize yourself. And while you don’t need to add 30 pounds of muscle and squat 3x your bodyweight to improve balance, getting stronger does help.

Get a slackline (and use it).

The slackline is the most obvious, immediately apparent way to improve balance. You hop on one, experience the leg wobbles that seem impossible to overcome, and in a few sessions you can handle yourself with relative grace and aplomb. This is real feedback that you’ve improved your balance.

Some of the studies bear this out. Slacking improves balance and postural control in female basketball players, for example, but doesn’t seem to confer non-specific balance (non-slackline) to everyone.

Research aside? After spending several years with my slackline, I’m comfortable on just about any surface. If I see a thin log spanning a creek while hiking, I’ll walk it.

Unless it spans some ravine with hungry crocodiles waiting below.

Get some 2×4 or 2×3 beams.

Head down to the hardware store and get one in each size. They won’t cost much more than $15, and you’ll have a quick, easy balance beam to practice on.

Don’t just walk on them. Slow bear crawling on a balance beam is an incredible test of balance.

Move deliberately.

Don’t rush through movements all the time. Move slooooowly and really feel the motion. Maintain control across the whole span.

I really like different plank variations, including contralateral and side planks, for the slow yet strong stress they place on your balance capacity.

Incorporate single leg lifts.

Single leg deadlifts and single leg squats (pistols, skater squats) all require incredible balance. Furthermore, because you’re balancing under load, you’ll strengthen the musculature and prepare the connective tissue required for balancing.

Spend more time barefoot.

An older study (which I can’t seem to dig up anymore; sorry) examining the effect of ankle taping on balance used people in bare feet as the control group because their balance was so superior. It’s obvious why to anyone with barefoot experience. You can “grip” the ground, rather than balance on a flat rubber sole. You’re no longer blunting the thousands of nerve endings lining the bottom of our feet; they can actually transmit valuable information to the “balance fund.”

Do dynamic movements and balance training.

Dynamic balance—the kind most important to athletes, the ability to maintain posture, position, and control throughout a movement—requires dynamic movements. You’re just not going to develop it without actually doing it.

One study had female athletes do either a plyometrics program (dozens of exercises involving broad jumps, vertical jumps, squat jumps, barrier jumps, wall jumps, drop jumps, tuck jumps—basically just a ton of jumping, focusing on maximal effort along with cutting movements with quick reactions) or a program designed to train dynamic balance and stability (jumping, with a focus on landing softly and avoiding knee valgus; balancing and lifting weights on both stable and unstable surfaces like BOSU balls and swiss balls; single leg exercises; stability and balance exercises as someone perturbs their center of gravity). Then they measured the effect on strength, power, stability (how much sway after jumping laterally), and impact force (how hard you land). Both programs improved each measure, only differing on impact force, with the balance program having a stronger effect on the dominant leg’s ability to land softly. In the end, the researchers conclude that doing a mix of both is probably best.

Another study in children supports their conclusion, finding that a combination of plyometrics and balance training improved sprint performance better than plyometrics alone.

Work balance into the day.

Stand on one leg while you wait for coffee.

Walk along the back side of a park bench.

Climb a tree and walk around on horizontal branches.

Walk along the curb.

Have fun with it.

Maintain a neutral spine.

Balance is about maintaining a stable, neutral spine amidst whatever gravity and life throws at you. So always focus on the spine.

Keep your shoulders back and chest up.

Keep your feet, ankles, knees, and hips mobile, lubed up, and primed for activity.

Watch knee valgus (knee sliding inward) during movements like squats.

This is basic posture, but it’s so important. If your head juts forward and your shoulders roll forward, you’re out of position. You’ve just committed 11 pounds of skull, flesh, and brain to a bad position where gravity can yank down on it.

Now imagine running, jumping, or even just walking down the street with that big head lolling around upsetting your balance.

Focus on closed kinetic chain movements over open chain ones.

Closed kinetic chain movements have you act on the ground to move a weight. Your hands or feet are touching the ground or other immoveable surface and do not move. Think squats, deadlifts, pushups, pullups. These require a cohesive, balanced kinetic chain and target every tissue and joint along the chain.

Open kinetic chain movements have you act on the weight itself. Your hands or feet touch the weight and move. Think leg extensions, hamstring curls, bench presses, lat pulldowns.

Studies show that closed kinetic chain exercises have a better effect on balance.

Do basic balance progressions.

The simplest way is to stand on one foot while doing slow, deliberate leg sweeps. Spice it up by closing your eyes and switching legs. This kind of simple balance training improves balance and, maybe most importantly, reduces the fear of falling in older adults. Less fear lowers the barrier to exercising, staying active, and enjoying life. That’s huge.

Bounce.

Most research has focused on mini-trampoline training’s positive effect on balance, but I’m confident larger trampolines are even more effective. I recently found myself on a 15 foot trampoline. The difference between jumping and landing with a neutral, aligned spine and jumping and landing even slightly hunched over was jarring. The former felt fluid and powerful and right. The latter felt all wrong, and I only jumped about half as high. Trampolines reward good balance. I imagine they enhance it, too.

Bounce houses work, too. The toddler-strewn floors add an element of dynamism.

Jump.

Jumping—and landing—is perhaps the single best test of balance. You’re flying through the air. You’re landing. Your body wants to keep going and you need to prevent that without tearing anything or falling over. There’s a lot going on, too much to intellectualize.

That’s why actually getting out and jumping is so important for balance. Keep the basics in mind—land softly on the balls of your feet, then the heels; land with hip flexion, absorb the impact with your quads, glutes, and hamstrings; don’t let your knees drift inward (valgus); maintain that neutral spine. You do it, you land it, you do it again, you improve, you learn. Start small, and the body will take care of the rest.

Senior with creaky knees? Try small hops.

Like lunges? Try Russian lunges (no weight necessary, necessarily).
Bored of broad jumps? Try 180° jumps, 90° jumps, or 180/90° jumps onto a park table.

That’s about it for today, folks.

How’s your balance? How has balance affected your life, your performance, and your injury risk? How do you train it?

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care.

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TAGS:  Aging

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35 thoughts on “The Importance of Balance—and 15 Ways to Enhance and Preserve It”

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  1. I would add that balanced muscle groups are important as well. Mark addresses this indirectly. When your muscles are out of whack due to injury, lack of use, or chronic poor posture, etc., nothing works quite right. Search out gentle exercises designed to correct imbalances. Sometimes a physiotherapist can help.

    I’ve had balance issues all my life (less kindly known as clumsiness), for whatever reason. I’ve never been particularly sure-footed or agile, despite years of effort to correct these problems. I tip over water glasses at the table, drop things, run into objects that are clearly visible, and would trip over my own feet if not careful. It has always been like this. I think some of it must be hereditary.

    1. You just described me. I may be jumping to conclusions, based on very limited information. but is it possible that you have ADD (or more accurately Inattentive type ADHD)? Before you say no, hear me out. I’m also scatter-brained, disorganized, have horrible time management, and misplace things all the time. A little over a decade ago, I learned that I have inattentive type ADHD (the so called adult ADD). It was only after I learned that it’s not so much a deficit of attention as it is a deficit of attention control. While this may seem like the same thing, it’s not. I have a harder time that the average person does when it comes to focusing on things I’m not interested in, but when it comes to things that I’m interested in, my attention can be laser like in it’s intensity. My best example is that in 4th or 5th grade, my class started math without me, because I was so into the book that I was reading that I wasn’t aware that they had started something new. It wasn’t until the teacher called my name and asked what the answer to number 2 was, that I looked up. I was so bewildered that she realized that I was just that into the book, told me what page to turn to in my math book, and called on someone else.

      If any of this sounds like you, you may want to take this online screening http://www.addadult.com/getting-help/for-you/online-screening-test/ Be brutally honest if you take it.

      One odd note about my clumsiness – While I may trip over flat ground, I’m quite sure footed when I’m on a surface that is fairly rough, uneven, or, or is somewhat dangerous. I’m paranoid of falling when I have to get on my roof, so I’m really careful there. I think it’s because in those situations, the ground (or roof) is a novel enough experience compared to the norm, that I actually pay closer attention to it.

      1. Thanks for your comment, but no, I’ve never had anything resembling ADD, ADHD, etc. For me (and probably others as well) it’s strictly a lack of good physical coordination. It’s obviously some sort of brain-body issue, but it doesn’t always involve the mental processes.

  2. Great article, Mark! I was diagnosed several years ago with a balance disorder, and I noticed only this year that the more I ride my bike, the better my balance and the milder my symptoms. Brain plasticity indeed! Thanks for this “keeper” article.

  3. I’ve been doing yoga for 15 years and even when I’m not taking classes I do a number of balance poses right after weight training including standing on 1 leg with eyes closed trying for 30 seconds. Even try standing on 1 leg while you brush your teeth.

    1. Good, will add the one leg brushing. The one I do now is the brushing while squatting (I got this from this site!).

  4. Now I have a problem: explaining to my boss that the 2×4 and 2×3 beams in the hallways between the cubicles are a good thing

  5. No problem with the slackline and this issue: (*)

    “Unless it spans some ravine with hungry crocodiles waiting below.”

    (*) as long as the crocodiles are not too many and under 1 meter long

  6. Great post and so important! I think my balance is better now than ever. I do the standing on one foot thing frequently, which I read about in one of Christiane Northrup’s books. It really stuck with me. I walk barefoot a lot, and always have since I was a kid. Last spring I beat a bunch of teenagers (I am 50) in a crazy pool game that involves running across the water on what is basically a long yoga mat. Pretty sure some balance was involved there. About a year ago I balanced on a guys shoulders while he rode a unicycle. (Not quite sure how I get myself into these situations!) Love all of these tips and will try to incorporate more of them.

  7. This is one of the best articles on enhancing and keeping balance skills that I have ever read. As a certified personal fitness trainer, I just have recommended reading it to everyone I can. And not just reading it, but following all of the tips. Thank you Mark, for writing this up. We all need it.

  8. I generally try to read all your articles balanced on one leg, then shift to the other. I’ve been waiting a long time for this article.

  9. We used to do this exercise as part of martial arts training: standing on one leg do 10 front snap kicks, then move behind into a side kick stance and do 10, then move back front and do 10 roundhouse kicks (your kicking foot should not touch the ground during this entire sequence). Switch to the other leg and repeat. Brutal at first until you get a couple of weeks practicing it under your belt.

    1. There are similar poses or rather pose progressions in yoga. Definitely for more advanced practitioners: go from balancing on one leg with the other one stretched out before you, to a warrior III pose (leg stretched back, arms forward) to a standing split (bend all the way forward, leg as high as possible, hands on the floor). Hold your ankle (of the foot that is on the floor) with both hands to make it extra challenging…

  10. Great article as usual. I think I’ve seen research that it’s better cognitively for us older folks to look ahead while walking rather than looking down. Maybe hat affects balance as well.

  11. Mark this is such a great article and makes me want to help spread the word even more about balance training! I am a yogi who has picked up a passion for slacklining over the last year and have become a part of the YogaSlackers community. Slacklining has not only improved my balance but my strength and confidence as well. YogaSlackers as well as Slackline Industries have instructors around the globe and have been growing in recent years, for anyone reading this comment look into both of these companies for upcoming workshops around the nation and get inspired to challenge yourself and have fun. If you’re near the Denver, Colorado area keep an eye out for slackline workshops at Kindness Yoga as well as The Spot Gym in Boulder.

    Thanks for the brilliant post Mark!

  12. Can’t really talk about improving balance without talking about tai chi which has been shown to be the best therapeutic method to doing just that

  13. The older I got the more motion sickness I experienced. Then I started doing yoga and playing games on the old WII Fit that had the balance board. It remarkably improved my susceptibility to motion sickness, so I learned how important it is to keep up with some balance activities.

    My great grandmother and grandmother both were in the category of dying less than a year after breaking their hip, so that is another lesson to me.

  14. Strenuous hiking in mountainous wilderness is great for balance–especially if you go off trail a lot the way I do. Hopping from rock to rock, climbing steep slopes, moving through brush and undercover, snow if it’s winter. I’m fortunate enough to be able to do it 2-3 times a week. It’s like a new, complex foot puzzle every millisecond of the way.

  15. Mark,
    Thanks for again bringing up a topic on wellness that I would have otherwise not paid much direct thought to. About 2 months ago I joined a yoga studio. I had grown a little stale in my routine at my gym and wanted to shake things up.. I am having a blast with yoga and I am constantly being pushed outside of my comfort zone in relation to balance. I am often wobbly and topping over through the classes, but all for the greater good of pushing through and growing.

  16. Great tips, thankyou! I’d like to add something my Pilates teacher often ‘warms us up’ with- rolling through the feet to standing on tiptoes (not sure if this has come up already?) You can start very gradually/ hold onto something at first if unused to it. You can add rolling up/ down through the outside or inside of the feet, and variants; adding raised arms, arm or both arms out to side to challenge balance; and even closed eyes. Really sensitizes & enlivens your feet as well as waking up the muscles & helping with balance.

  17. Great stuff. I got a slackline after I read your article about it. I love it! We have a big trampoline, and it is a great challenge. My wife and I brush our teeth standing on an XerDisc. I am a believer!

  18. Great work! Thanks for sharing with us. from last year, i am facing issues with balancing with my right leg. Can you give some suggestion regarding it?

  19. Great balancing tips! Nutrition wise, Vitamin E plays an important roll in Balance, so make sure you get adequate amount from safe sources. My favorite is Pili nuts.

  20. It’s amazing how much single leg exercises make you stronger & more balanced. They’re hard when you first start, but a good challenge, and you quickly learn to realize the benefits (and maybe even enjoy them!)

  21. I’m curious about your take on this for a mid-20s female with ACL issues. I’ve had a complete ACL replacement but have partially retorn the graft. I’ve been trying to strengthen the joint to avoid a second surgery, but get set back when doing HIIT or jumping-style movements. I have slight knee valgus and try to move properly. I’m frustrated that it still feels so weak. I know I have limited hip mobility and also don’t get to the chiropractor as often as I should. Any advice on how to train/perfect my balance?

  22. I wrote the book Balance is Power!
    Balance training will make you a better athlete, live longer and help you think better. We have had great success with post concussion syndrome clients. I have ADD, dyslexia and TBI brain damage. It is why I developed my patented products and processes. To help myself. I have been a skier for 60 years and I am a better skier now than 10 years ago. I am glad to see Mark pay attention to the life changing importance of the human balance system. Be Balanced!

  23. Thanks Mark.this will help me.I’m an IT professional from India, was suffering from severe neck and body pain.Last year I visited Aster CMI-the best hospital near me at Bangalore. They were nice and did considerable change in my life but again listening to masters like you will help to prevent it from happening again. Thanks

  24. Thanks for sharing this information with us blog post and as we all know what is the importance of balance is in our life but thanks for telling how to prevent and enhance it.